Joel Dorn: Producer at Atlantic Records

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The Independent Online

Joel Dorn, record producer: born Philadelphia 7 April 1942; married (four sons, and one adopted son); died New York 17 December 2007.

The record producer Joel Dorn was fond of running himself down: "I'm a classically trained nothing. I can't even play a kazoo. I don't know anything about technology, nor do I know anything about music, and I'm deaf." Although there is some truth in this, Dorn had immense good taste and he refused to compromise. During his years with Atlantic Records, he worked with the jazz musicians Herbie Mann and Max Roach, as well as with Bette Middler and Roberta Flack, for whom he produced the Grammy-winning singles "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly With His Song"

Dorn was born in Philadelphia in 1942 and his earliest memory was of enjoying the imagery on Al Jolson's record of "April Showers". As a consequence of mumps when he was seven, he lost much of the hearing in his right ear and would joke, "I've never heard stereo: I don't give a shit about stereo." Although he often included mono tracks on his albums, he could create excellent stereo mixes including the multi-layered textures for the Neville Brothers on Fiyo on the Bayou (1981).

When Dorn was in his early teens, he would sneak out to hear Ray Charles and his band playing in local clubs. Charles's music remained a standard to which he aspired as a producer. "By the time they got to 'What I Say', you needed to take a shower as you were fucking wasted, and I ain't feelin' that now," he said. "Take away the smoke machines and the laser beams and the light show and gimme somebody that can stand there and do it. I'm still looking for that." Dorn never made a record with Charles, although he wished it had happened.

In 1961, Dorn worked as "The Masked Announcer" for a Philadelphia radio station, and he would play his favourite Atlantic Records including those by Ray Charles. He would send suggestions to Atlantic's jazz producer and co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun. Ertegun sensed Dorn's talent and, in 1964, asked him to produce a solo album for the flautist Hubert Laws. The album, The Laws of Jazz, led to a full-time job for Dorn with the label.

Dorn worked with many of Atlantic's jazz artists Max Roach, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Mose Allison doing his best to make commercial records without compromising their talent. He made numerous albums with the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk including The Inflated Tear (1967) and an album with Kirk and the vocalist Al Hibbler, A Meeting of the Times (1972).

In 1970, Dorn turned to rock with the Allman Brothers' Idlewild South (1970) and his friend the songwriter Doc Pomus introduced him to an effervescent new talent, Bette Midler. Her sensational first album, The Divine Miss M (1972) included a swinging revival of the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" as well as a slowed-down interpretation of "Do You Want to Dance". Dorn recognised Roberta Flack's ability and they won Record of the Year Grammys for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (1972) and "Killing Me Softly With His Song" (1973).

He left Atlantic in 1974 as he felt it was becoming too corporate (in his own words, "I'm not working for a colony of baboons") and he enjoyed many one-off projects: Don McLean's Homeless Brother (1974), Dory Previn's We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx (1976), Steve Goodman's Say it in Private (1977), Asleep at the Wheel's Collision Course (1978), Lou Rawls's Shades Of Blue (1981) and July Collins's Fires Of Eden (1990). He desperately wanted to make an album with three of his favourite voices Aaron Neville, Dusty Springfield and Frankie Valli but it did not come to fruition.

In 1986, Bob Dylan was visiting Doc Pomus in New York. Pomus didn't want Dylan to know that he wasn't receiving much work, so he asked Dorn to phone him during the afternoon with offers. On the first call, Pomus said, "I'm too busy to work on your film right now, Mr Coppola." After three calls, Pomus regretted the ruse, but he couldn't tell Dorn to stop without blowing his cover.

Dorn formed his own labels 32 Records, Label M and latterly Hyena. He was involved in reissues, overseeing new collections of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and working on boxed sets for Rhino/Atlantic. In recent months, he had been working through filmed performances by Bobby Darin and compiling a five-CD homage to Nesuhi Ertegun.

He despaired of the music industry's complaints about downloading and the economy. "Let me tell you something," he said to one reporter. "You make a record tomorrow that makes you feel like a Marvin Gaye record did 30 years ago. I don't give a fuck how bad the economy is: people will buy that record."

Spencer Leigh

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